Methyl Ethel are haunted: “That is what excites me - really messing with things and making something that could just fall apart”
Jake Webb talks fourth studio album Are You Haunted?, collaborations, making “spooky” music, upcoming tour and his current “relationship with time”
Oh Inhuman Spectacle. Everything Is Forgotten. Triage. What does this collection of words mean? Well, apart from being somewhat mystifying, enigmatic and thought inspiring, they are the names of the first three studio albums by Methyl Ethel, the recording project of W.A.’s Jake Webb, a multi-instrumentalist, multi-talented songwriter, producer and vocalist who today continues his trend of thought provoking record titles as he unveils album number four, Are You Haunted?
To find out all about the record and other cool stuff happening in the world of Methyl, Webb jumped on zoom to give us his deeply thoughtful, humorous and authentic responses - the stuff as an interviewer you can only hope for! I kicked off by asking why now, four records in, did it feel like the right time to collaborate with a guest vocalist for the first time, as he did on latest Single Proof feat. Stella Donnelly?
"It's not really any plan, hey - that song just needed someone else in it. Really, that's the decision. And then like, being here (Perth) and thinking "who" - really it was just a no brainer for me.
So much a part this part of putting a record out, it's like the story evolves now? Or like the story is written after the fact, kind of. The real truth is a lot of the decisions, at this point as well, are just like 'let's get this finished, I really want this to happen', reach out to Stella, get Stella in, and then you sit back and look and go 'wow this was special for all these reasons'."
Have you written other songs where you've felt like it needed someone else's vocals and then not pursued it, or is this the first time you've felt that?
"I have, yeah. I remember, I had a chat with Lucy Peach at In The Pines one year, and I can't remember what song it was for... but it was then that I just ended up singing, just doing it all myself. But it was a similar thing, cos I love Lucy Peach's voice, it's so incredible. It's that kinda thing, especially when it does happen in that sort of natural way. It just seems right, and if it happens it happens."
Going back to Jake's point about much of the story of a record being written after the fact, I was curious to dive into the title of the record - Are You Haunted? - is I'd read the title wasn't as straight forward as it first appeared, not necessarily talking about the traditional ghosts and spirits nature of the word and wanted to know more.
"It starts with that title. That title is something that I had written down in like a short list of record titles that I thought would be interesting to make. I always think of records in a certain way, I have this idea of what kind of a framework, for me, is a nice flow of a record, that's pretty loose and broad. I do really like writing to a title, or writing to a theme because I need something to help me to keep things on a track, because it's so easy for me to go in all directions at once. That's kind of how it happens.
I just thought the idea of being haunted is something that could be kind of expanded upon and not be so much the spirits of people who've passed away, and thought about it as just being more broad, you know, your past selves, humanity's past behaviours, the idea of actions coming back to haunt you in that way. Two European friends of mine used to describe my music as sounding 'spooky', they'd always say 'spooky' - maybe ithat found its way in there, 'well I make spooky music anyway, may as well lean into it' *laughs*"
"It's loose, I don't want to make a fucking concept album - as much as I love some concept albums, that's not what I'm trying to do."
After chuckling at the idea of Methyl Ethel as 'spooky' music, it also kind of instantly made sense, as whether it be certain melodies or lyrical themes, there is a darker, or should I say, spooky element at times. However, I find this is sort of counterbalanced with something lighter, something more upbeat so I asked - is there indeed a juxtaposition going on there?
"Totally. The whole idea of counterpoints is pretty much a part of the sort of process, the way I like to think about things. And as well, I have my tastes and things, and my taste in a lot of music, and books, the things that I consume are just darker, I think, so to me it's sort of natural to read and write things that take on those sorts of things.
But the music that I enjoy to listen to, and especially parts of the music I like to make, it's not all just moody, experimental, like droney, ambient music, which I love as well, but I understand that this project, I want people to feel like a little bit of exhilaration or feel something and move to the music, that's totally cool, and sort of also part of the intention.
The trick I think is to find a way to weave everything together without it becoming like, complete shit. *laughs* You know, without the bones of it all just disintegrating cos you've tried to make something that just cannot survive."
Hearing Jake's meticulously crafted, densely layered compositions, it's hard to imagine him crafting something that becomes complete shit at this stage - so, four albums in does this still happen, or has experience pushed him past this?
"Everytime I finish something, it kind of gets put behind glass, and it is just like a lesson for me to learn from, whether it be some spontaneous ideas, or some sort of naive apporach to something, that's really great. Something that, for me, might be overcooked. Everything then just becomes in the realm of opinion, where my opinion about it is just as valid as your opinion about it. Whether you think it's shit or great or meh or whatever - I'm just the same.
There's plenty of things, especially making this record - I kind of wanted to hold to account all of my ideas, all of my demos - cos you make music too, yeah?"
(I try to lol)
"You know what it's like having a folder full of stuff that you think 'this is so great, I love it, I'm amazing', *laughs* but going in and actually trying to finish the songs, that's really hard and that's when you see if something can survive. Plenty of stuff was just like delete forever, to quote a great song by Grimes. Delete forever."
What happened next is one of my favourite moments in an interview in recent memory. I was wanting to get back to some things Jake had mentioned about past selves and humanity's past behaviours, and realised all too late I probably should have given more context as I simply asked:
What's your current relationship with time?
After which followed some of the most beautiful, genuine, surprised laughter I've experienced in a while on Jakes behalf, which obviously set me off.
"That's the greatest question I've ever heard!! Oh my god. Will that has made my whole week. I love that. That's a forever moment."
With much laughter I said well, let's not give any more context there and leave the question at that - of course Jake's answer went deep.
"I was saying to somebody recently, and it's not like a stoner conversation or anything but it sounds like that. It was talking about the record, it was the idea that there's three sort of parallel selves, and this is just kinda my bullshit that I was thinking of. Moment to moment, you always have that past self, that thing that I just said, you have that future self, that projection of yourself, which is "ah, I'm anxious about what I'm gonna say, the words that are gonna come outta my mouth".
I think depending on how you're feeling you can be caught up in your past self, caught up in your future self. I guess there's like this mindfulness, kinda trying to stay in the present, but it really makes sense, but it's a weird kinda schizophrenic life, really, when you are disembodied in that kind of way. That is my personal relationship with time."
Damn. A more than appropriately transcendental answer to an ethereal question. I also thanked Jake for pointing that out, as just like when someone says "don't think about breathing", now it's all I'll be focusing on (and you will to ;) ).
A terrible habit of mine is nerding out a little too much in music interviews when it comes to recording, mixing and production in general, however there was reason to ask about one of the studio spaces Are You Haunted? was worked on in, as it's a space he first used back in the day, with a friend who has sadly passed away.
"High school buddy, yeah. We just always grew up making music together, I was always in production. I would spend lots of time sitting behind him, learning bits and pieces - not that he taught me directly, we were just really great friends who'd spend lots of time recording music and fucking around, like recording the sound of pizza sizzling out of the microwave. You know, really going deep and listening to a lot of Pink Floyd and stuff when we were kids.
He encouraged me to buy a four-track cassette-typeish thing, and gave me that push, "you should just go record your music own your own", you know just kinda do it yourself kinda thing. Yeah, really, really great person."
Getting to return to that same studio to craft Are You Haunted? is such a beautiful thing, so I wondered how big an impact the space music was created in had on a record?
"Yeah, huge, huge impact. Returning to this place, I hadn't been there for a long time, in between you know going and touring and sort of disconnecting really with a lot of my friends, and so it kind of took on a new life.
It is, without wanting to sound corny or too overboard about it, it sort of has a bit of a sanctity about the space. I didn't want it to be too much of an active ingredient in the recording of it, it's a great space and I knew it well, but it does find its way in.
I just think that moving around, for me, is really helpful. So much so that I've been thinking about the next record - I was driving through Fremantle the other day, right near B & C shed, near the port authority building. There's this tower on top that kind of looks like at an airport, the traffic control tower. I thought, 'I'd like to record a record up there, I think that would be pretty nice" *laughs*
That'sthe kind of thing, I think it can either be like the hot, like the 'big' part of it. Band in a bubble kind of situation. Which is like the BS part of it, which is having it be too much part of it, but I think moving and being in fresh environments."
Speaking of fresh, Jake will be working with some of WA's freshest rising musical talents as part of the Triple J Unearthed Collab Comp. Anesu, Alter Boy, Hector Morlet, The Stamps and Jewel Owusu were the five extremely diverse winners, all of whom I'm super curious to hear get an injection of Methyl Ethel, so I was wondering about Jake's broad ideas for the collaborations.
"From my recent experience with working with other people, and just being on the other side as well, having some real bad experiences, I just want to be flexible enough to offer some sort of assistance as possible.
Even something as simple as a conversation about, like, an approach to things. It could go all the way to working on a track together, but really, that's I think stage one. The potential for something cool and interesting to happen... I know that I am interested in taking what somebody does and seeing them do not that, seeing them do something completely different. That is what excites me - really messing with things and making something that could just fall apart completely, but at least you gave it a go.
I think there's just so much music out there - if you're not even feeling like you're sort of pioneering or breaking new ground, even though there's a very small chance that that's what's actually happening, but if you don't feel like that, sometimes to me it feels even more pointless than usual *laughs*"
I feel like Jake and I could have kept chatting, but time and our relationship with it got the better of us, so I finished off by asking about the upcoming Methyl Ethel national tour, including their headline show at Perth Festival on Friday, February 25 at the European Foods Warehouse in Northbridge, and how the new record was feeling live?
"It's feeling really great. We're gonna play the whole record at the Perth Festival show as well. I'm really excited to play it in front of people."
And we're really excited to witness it.
Methyl Ethel’s new album Are You Haunted? is out now via Future Classic
Methyl Ethel play Perth Festival Friday, Feb 25 at the European Foods Warehouse